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Spy Clouds Hang Over Trump’s Inauguration

Trump is about to enter the White House with multiple  fronts in an ongoing skirmish with American intelligence—what happens  next?

Tomorrow Donald J. Trump will become our 45th president, an event heralded by his supporters as a big step towards changing the course of our politics and, per their mantra, making America great again. While the festivities have produced giggles from the president-elect’s semi-comical inability to get top talent to play his inauguration, a considerably more serious problem for Trump has emerged on the espionage front.

He weathered last week’s spy-storm, generated by Buzzfeed’s leak of a 35-page dossier of allegations regarding his clandestine ties to the Kremlin, by mocking them in customary Trumpian fashion. In a series of angry tweets, the president-elect denounced the Intelligence Community as the source of that leak—even though it was not—while proclaiming the dossier to be “fake news.” Since he recently compared American spies to Nazis on Twitter, Trump seemingly wants a full-fledged war with the IC from his first day in the Oval Office.

If America’s 17-agency spy empire isn’t on Trump’s side, Vladimir Putin is. In defense of the president-elect, the Kremlin strongman proclaimed the dossier to be “rubbish” and “clearly false information,” mocking reports of Russian kompromat, colorfully adding that those who he claimed were smearing Trump were “worse than prostitutes.”

To be fair, the dossier, which was compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer with extensive experience in Russian matters, does have dodgy aspects. As I explained last week, it’s raw, unfiltered human intelligence from multiple sources with varying levels of access and credibility. Some of the dossier’s claims are quite plausibly true, others are demonstrably false, while much of it is unverifiable and may be Kremlin disinformation. Given the long history of Russian provocation and deception against Western governments, a high degree of skepticism is in order here.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Donald Trump Addresses Dossier’s Pedestrian Claims

Putin and his spies have no need for clandestine meetings in Central European capitals

Just 10 days before his inauguration as our 45th president, Donald Trump’s nascent administration has been turned upside down by new accusations of secret Russian machinations that aided his election. These new allegations are largely unsubstantiated and salacious to a degree never seen before about any American president.

First, CNN fired a shot across Trump’s bow late yesterday with a report alleging deep links between the president-elect and the Kremlin. Specifically, CNN stated that the heads of our Intelligence Community, who recently briefed Trump on Russian hacking and propaganda during 2016 that tried to influence our election, also informed the president-elect that Russian intelligence has compromising materials on him.

Kompromat, as they call it in Moscow, is the mother’s milk of Kremlin espionage, and given Trump’s larger-than-life persona, with its decades of dodgy finances and edgy dalliances with women, it should surprise no one that Russian spies have juicy information there which the public hasn’t seen, particularly given the president-elect’s numerous trips to Russia going back to 1987.

CNN noted that a dossier compiled by a former British intelligence official with long experience in Russian matters had been circulating in Washington since late last year, and was causing heartburn for American spies, since its allegations were explosive. Most seriously, it posited an on-going clandestine relationship between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin to swing the election Trump’s way.

Just as the commentariat began to shudder at the implications of this bombshell, Buzzfeed released the actual dossier, 35 pages crammed with allegations of grave wrongdoing, including espionage by Trump surrogates against fellow Americans. This was a rather standard example of raw human intelligence reporting, a mishmash of claims, some of them obviously untrue. But the essence of its case—that Trump has been playing footsie with Vladimir Putin for years and knowingly accepted his secret help to win the White House—may well turn out to be true.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Monica Crowley’s Remarkably Flagrant Literary Theft Couldn’t Be an Accident

President-elect Trump may want to reconsider hiring a known plagiarist to serve in his White House

Plagiarism—that is, the intentional lifting of others’ words and passing them off as your own—is something that gets writers and academics excited but seldom registers with the general public. Except when someone famous, or at least semi-famous, gets caught doing it and the media takes notice, reminding everyone that such literary theft is at least very bad form.

Which is what’s just happened to a member of the still-forming administration of President-elect Donald Trump. Monica Crowley, who’s been slated to serve in the new White House as the senior director of strategic communications on the National Security Council, a plum job which she’s suited for as a longtime right-wing media gadfly. A fixture on Fox News for years, as one of that network’s stable of fetching blonde talking-heads, Crowley would seem to be an ideal fit for such a high-profile position.

She also has academic pedigree and has published several books. Crowley received her Ph.D. in international relations from Columbia and served for years as research assistant to former President Richard Nixon, acting as his academic factotum during his final years. After his 1994 death, Crowley published two serious, somewhat scholarly books about the former president, in 1996 and 1998, respectively.

However, her big splash in publishing came in 2012 with the publication by HarperCollins of What the (Bleep) Just Happened, a less-than-scholarly tome, indeed a semi-comic one lambasting President Obama in the manner of so many right-wing books over the last eight years, which have aimed to preach to those already converted by Fox News. The book became a best-seller and raised her already high profile in conservative media circles.

It’s therefore a big problem for her that a close examination of that book by CNN Money has revealed that significant chunks of that best-seller aren’t Crowley’s own work. In more than 50 cases, she had lifted quotes, verbatim—in some cases entire paragraphs—from other sources, including op-eds, think tank reports, even Wikipedia. Having investigated plagiarism cases in my academic career, what Crowley did in What the (Bleep) Just Happened represents a remarkably flagrant example of literary theft, one that could not have happened by accident. CNN Money’s investigation demonstrates that Crowley stole the work of many others, whole hog, without any effort at attributing where “her” writing actually came from.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Donald Trump Hosts the Premier Spy Event of the Season

Clapper, Comey, Brennan and Rogers walk into a room…

Today, while the rest of Manhattan was getting lunch, Donald Trump received an intelligence briefing from our nation’s top spies. America’s espionage leadership made the pilgrimage to Trump Tower to give the president-elect their collective assessment of what Russia did to our election last year. At 12:30, they sat down with the man who will be inaugurated our 45th president in exactly two weeks and delivered the most anticipated intelligence briefing in years.

It’s not every day our spy bosses tag-team a presentation, but this was of course no ordinary intel brief. James Clapper, our Director of National Intelligence, led the effort, backed by Admiral Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency and the head of U.S. Cyber Command, plus John Brennan and James Comey, the directors of the CIA and the FBI, respectively. In other words, this was the premier spy event of the season.

The briefing was highly classified—Top Secret-plus—so we don’t know exactly what Clapper and the others had to say, but we can make an educated guess based on their testimony yesterday to the Senate Armed Services Committee. The leaders of our Intelligence Committee didn’t mince words, even though their comments were at the unclassified level and therefore lacking much detail about how they know what they do about Kremlin spy-games in 2016.

The IC’s joint statement to senators on cybersecurity left no doubt how our spy agencies look at what happened over the last year:

Read the rest at The Observer…

Donald Trump’s Soft Spot for Russia Could Be His Political Undoing

President-elect may soon learn that you can’t fool all the people, all the time

Three weeks ago, I counseled President-elect Donald Trump that going to war against the spies is never a good idea in Washington. Our Intelligence Community knows lots of things, not all of which would be flattering to someone whose retinue includes so many people with odd connections to the Kremlin. When spies get angry, they call reporters and arrange discreet chats in parking garages. The last president who entered the Oval Office with this much dislike and distrust of the IC was Richard Nixon—and we know how that worked out for him.

Trump has now outdone Nixon, upping his war on the spooks even before his inauguration, by making plain that he believes Moscow—not our country’s spies—regarding the issue of Russian interference in our election. As I’ve explained in detail, although there is no evidence that the Kremlin literally “hacked” our election in 2016, there’s a mountain of evidence that Vladimir Putin’s intelligence services stole Democratic emails then went public with them via Wikileaks to hurt Hillary Clinton.

However, the president-elect refuses to accept the consensus view of the IC, not to mention many outside experts who have confirmed their analysis. In response to President Obama’s recent public statement pointing a finger at the Kremlin for their misdeeds against our democracy, backed up by rather mild sanctions on Moscow, President-elect Trump has pursued his customary tactic of denying, doubling-down, then denying some more, regardless of any evidence proffered.

Trump and his mouthpieces continue to deny that Russians had any role in our 2016 election, which is a patent falsehood. Indeed, a few days ago, the president-elect promised to deliver revelations by the middle of this week about what happened with those Democratic emails, adding that he knew “things that other people don’t know” about the hacking. Here he apparently channeled O. J. Simpson, whose quest to find the “real killers” of his ex-wife and her friend remains unfulfilled, more than two decades later.

Trump’s promise was empty, and there is no new evidence to contradict the IC’s conclusion that Moscow stood behind the operation to politically harm Hillary Clinton and her party last year. Like his promise to reveal President Obama’s “real” birth certificate—which would show he was born in Kenya, or Mars, rather than Hawaii—this was no more than another cynical Trumpian publicity stunt.

Read the rest at The Observer …

The West Must Prevent Cold War 2.0

If we don’t resist Russian political warfare, very soon, Putin will win

It was a year of profound, indeed systemic crisis. Across the West, friends of the Kremlin were surging in democratic elections, playing on legitimate fears of voters about economic anxiety and societal erosion. Moscow’s agents infiltrated Western politics at all levels, corrupting media and public discourse, while several European countries were poised to fall to parties overtly under Kremlin control—via the ballot box, not a coup. For Westerners who treasured freedom, it was all a nightmare coming true.

The year was 1947.

It’s important to note that while 2016, the year ending today, has been a dreadful one for Westerners who treasure freedom, with Vladimir Putin’s minions clandestinely subverting our politics, even in the United States, we’ve been here before. Indeed, we’ve been through much worse not all that long ago.

Moreover, the political threat currently emanating from Moscow is nothing new. Indeed, the parallels with the conditions the West faced at the dawn of the last Cold War are astonishing and ought to be recalled as Westerners ponder how to get it right in 2017—which may be the last chance to prevent the complete collapse of the American-led global order which, for all its faults, has worked well at preventing all-out global war for more than 70 years.

To start, we must not seek to downplay how grave the current crisis really is. Since the end of the first Cold War in 1991, a generation of neoliberal economics has raised Western prosperity, albeit not very evenly—rising tides turn out to lift some boats much more than others—while the angry legions of those who cannot compete in the 21st century economy grow daily. Many of them seek refuge in empty lives of online escapism, drink and drugs to numb their sense of displacement. Their frustrations also include a nagging sense that, between declining native demographics and uncontrolled migration, they are literally losing their countries—in too many cases, to foreigners who plainly hate the locals and sometimes seek to kill them.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Obama Finally Wakes Up to Join the SpyWar at the 11th Hour

President-elect Trump inherits an ultimatum he cannot ignore

Yesterday, following months of anticipation, the White House announced sanctions against Russia’s intelligence services for their interference in our 2016 election plus their rough treatment of America’s spies in the field. Coming on the heels of years of Russian hardball in the SpyWar, and in the very last month of Barack Obama’s presidency, this is more a gesture than a substantive policy change.

What President Obama announced will cause Moscow some pain. Two intelligence agencies are explicitly sanctioned: the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU), both of which engaged in what the media calls “hacking” which is properly termed signals intelligence or SIGINT. Adding GRU and the FSB to the sanctions list won’t mean much practically speaking, but four GRU officers have been cited by name, as have three GRU front companies which were engaged in clandestine SIGINT operations against the Democrats.

More substantively, the State Department is shutting down two Russian “diplomatic” compounds in Maryland and New York which have been used by GRU, FSB and the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) for years as spy bases. Their lavish retreat venue on the Eastern Shore of Maryland had been used by the Russians for decades to covertly collect SIGINT on American installations in the Washington area, particularly the National Security Agency, located in central Maryland.

What’s getting the most attention is how the White House has ordered Foggy Bottom to kick 35 Russian spies out of the country without delay. Around the world, spies pose as diplomats, with accreditation from the host government. Since espionage is illegal pretty much everywhere, this is a polite fiction that allows spies to do their job, quietly, with a modicum of diplomatic protection. They only get that status revoked—it’s called being declared persona non grata, PNG for short, among spies—if they get caught flagrantly violating the host country’s laws. Or, as in this case, if the host country wants to send a strong message.

Mass expulsions were used on occasion during the Cold War, by all sides. Back in 1971, Britain expelled 90 Soviet spies, the lion’s share of the Kremlin’s covert operatives in the country, in reaction to the defection of a KGB officer who told London that Moscow had standing plans to conduct terrorism in the United Kingdom. They did it again in 1985, expelling 25 Soviet “diplomats” from Britain, and Moscow retaliated in kind, declaring 25 British “diplomats” PNG in return, in typical SpyWar fashion.

Read the rest at The Observer …